Geelong icon emerges from the shadows

Research news
04 June 2014
The life of pioneering Geelong obstetrician Mary De Garis has been celebrated in a new biography.

The life of pioneering Geelong obstetrician Mary De Garis has been celebrated in a new biography.

In a life story more intriguing than a Hollywood movie, one of Victoria’s first female medical graduates and Geelong’s first female obstetrician was exceptional in every sense of the word.

The story of Dr De Garis has been celebrated in a biography by Deakin historian Dr Ruth Lee, “Woman War Doctor, the Life of Mary De Garis,” published this week.

Dr De Garis was the thirty-first woman to enrol in medicine from the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1905.

From the time she arrived in Geelong in 1919, Dr De Garis began to work tirelessly for women’s health, particularly in obstetrics and infant welfare. She was the sole woman doctor in Geelong until 1941 and was the “go-to” obstetrician for generations of Geelong women until retiring in 1958.

Dr Lee, who is a Research Assistant in the Faculty of Arts and Education, and Language and Learning Advisor in the Division of Student Life, began researching Dr De Garis for her PhD several years ago. After two years of writing, her book was launched this week by Deakin’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander and Australian “Living Treasure” Barry Jones, who was delivered into the world by Dr De Garis in 1932.

“I first learnt about De Garis after I noted in general histories - as a footnote - reference to a woman doctor in Geelong that seemed remarkably early,” said Dr Lee. “I then tracked down an article about Mary that was taken by then-medical student Dr Carolyn De Poi.

Dr Lee struck gold when she managed to track down two great nieces of Dr De Garis - one in Canberra and the other in Sydney - who each possessed about six tubs of relevant material.

“She was a prolific writer her whole life,” said Dr Lee. “She wrote about 48 medical journal articles and five books: two on obstetrics and three on economics!”

Dr De Garis was a passionate feminist, successfully agitating to get women represented on the Geelong Hospital General Committee (then the New Kitchener Memorial Hospital). She was also influential in the pavilion design of the new hospital, which played an important role in reducing cross-infections, particularly from TB, at the time.

Dr De Garis also agitated for the first maternity ward at the Geelong Hospital, which gave hospital access to the poorer women of Geelong for the first time, from 1931. Previously, poorer women only gave birth at home with midwives, while wealthier women had access to Geelong’s private hospitals.

She was also very interested in reducing infant and maternal mortality rates, undertaking research on labour pain and establishing the first antenatal and post-natal clinics at Geelong Hospital.

“It was an intellectual challenge putting this archive together and seeing what it added up to,” said Dr Lee.

Of the many facets of De Garis’ life, her actions during the First World War were particularly inspirational. After being rejected to serve for Australia (nurses were accepted) she sailed for London to join her fianc?, who was sadly killed in action in France.

Indefatigable, De Garis signed up with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, to serve in one of 14 all-women mobile medical units set up by UK suffrage societies. She managed the 200-bed Ostrovo Unit in Macedonia for 14 months. She never married, devoting her life to the service of others.

De Garis was one of 22 Australian women doctors engaged medically in the First World War, close to war fronts. However, she has not been acknowledged by the Australian War Memorial, despite receiving a high honour from the Serbian army and a service medal from the British Government.

“I was inspired by her,” said Dr Lee. “I think others will be too. She is a beacon to others, for a whole range of reasons, including persistence, intellect, feminist beliefs, community service, profound self-confidence, fearlessness, energy and sheer resilience.”

“Woman War Doctor: The Life of Mary De Garis” can be purchased from Geelong book shops and should be available in Melbourne book shops from July.

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Historian and author, Dr Ruth Lee. Historian and author, Dr Ruth Lee.

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